Just because I watch too much anime, doesn’t mean that onigiri (rice balls) aren’t a totally awesome portable snack food. They appeal to my love of “elemental food” – simple to make, unprocessed foods with few ingredients, which usually happen to be a major part of cultural traditions. One of my (many) favorite parts in Spirited Away was when Chihiro was fading away in the spirit world and Haku brought her some rice balls to make her solid again – this is food that brings you back to earth.

At their most basic level, onigiri are simply shapes formed out of sushi rice (short grain rice seasoned with vinegar). They can be wrapped in nori seaweed, filled with fish or umeboshi paste,  coated with sesame seed furikake for flavor, shaped in balls or triangles or cutesy rainbow and flower shapes, etc etc… I prefer the standard sushi-rice version, stuffed with canned tuna with mayo; but my husband prefers a sweet version, made with brown sugar and cream or almond milk. As you can see, I cheat in the shaping, using a little wooden mold I ordered online – as my first attempts at shaping them by hand with my Love Hina-besotted little sister were tasty, but funny-looking. Use of a mold makes them much faster to assemble.

One more anecdote before the recipe… my bag of rice had a New Crop sticker on it, which always makes me a bit melancholy. Niea_7 was a beautiful, funny, and sad story that was a little bit about growing up away from home – and even years later I still remember starving student Mayuko’s joy at being gifted with a bag of rice from the new crop. Food that can make someone that happy is food that should be celebrated. I wish more people would open their eyes and appreciate simple food for the pleasure that it can be.  (^_^)

Basic Onigiri Recipe

  • 1.5 cups sushi rice (short-grain, like Calrose or Kokuho Rose.)
  • 2 Tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar like Marukan (or regular rice vinegar plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar)
  • your choice of filling, optional

Cook the rice. If you have a rice cooker, then easy! To cook the rice on the stove, bring the rice and 2 cups water to boil in a small heavy pot over medium heat. Turn the heat down as low as you possibly can and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until all of the water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let steam with the lid on for another 10 minutes.

Scoop the rice into a cooking bowl (and throw the pot into cold water to soak, for easy cleanup.) Stir the vinegar into the hot rice until it’s fully absorbed. It should get nice and shiny. Let the rice cool for 5-10 minutes, stirring every so often to release the heat, until it’s cool enough to handle.

When you’re ready to shape the rice balls, fill a bowl of water and set it nearby so you can moisten your hands. The rice will stick to you horribly when you try to shape it unless your hands are nice and wet. Scoop up about 1/4 cup of rice, and use both hands to squeeze the rice into a triangular shape about 1″ thick. That’s the basic idea. If you choose to use a filling, make sure you surround the filling with a good layer of rice on all sides so it doesn’t leak out when you squish it.

Wrap the rice balls tightly in plastic wrap if you don’t plan to eat them right away. They do taste best when eaten the same day, however. Tastes best at room temperature with a good Japanese soy sauce, but if you’ve used a perishable filling, please do refrigerate.

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